Getting enough sleep is important for maintaining healthy energy levels, proper hormonal balance and aiding weight loss, yet an estimated 30% of American adults sleep fewer than six hours per night. Moreover, just over half meet the recommended federal exercise recommendations — and it looks like those two data points might be related.
New research from Brandeis University suggests sleep quality could be improved with a daily walk.
As part of the study published in the journal Sleep Health, participants were given fitness trackers to monitor the number of steps they took each day; they also completed questionnaires about their sleep habits, including their bedtimes, how long it took to fall asleep, number of nighttime awakenings and overall sleep quality. The results showed the more steps the participants took, the higher their self-reported sleep quality.
Study co-author Alycia Bisson, a PhD candidate at Brandeis University, suspects there are two possible reasons walking was associated with improved sleep. “There are psychological benefits of exercise, like stress reduction or mood improvements that would likely help people fall asleep more quickly and sleep better because they’re happier and less likely to ruminate, overthink or worry about things as they’re falling asleep,” she explains. “The mechanism could also be more physiological: People who are physically active during the day are more likely to feel tired at the end of the day.”
Moreover, regular exercise can help regulate your internal clock, keeping you on a consistent sleep schedule. “It also increases blood flow to the brain and improves overall brain health, so frequent exercise could help the brain produce deeper, more restorative sleep,” adds Bisson.
There is no bad time to go for a walk, but exercising in the morning or early afternoon might be best. “Cortisol levels are typically highest during this time, keeping you awake and alert,” explains Jennifer Cohen, a certified personal trainer and author of “Strong is the New Skinny.” “As the day goes on, cortisol levels drop in preparation for melatonin, the sleep hormone, to rise. Exercising in the evening or late at night can disrupt this natural cycle and can leave you lying in bed tossing and turning, not able to fall asleep.”
However, if you prefer to exercise in the evening, there are still some other benefits. For example, going for a stroll after dinner could help with digestion and better control blood sugar levels.
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In the study, women who took 4,000 steps per day rated their sleep quality around an 8 out of 10, while those who took 10,000 steps per day rated their sleep quality closer to 10. (The research did not find connections between the average steps and sleep quality among men).
Although the study did not look at the impact of walking speed or distance on sleep, other research shows a brisk walk lasting 20 minutes (or longer) is linked to fewer sleep difficulties. Higher speeds could help burn more energy, stressing the body and triggering the need to sleep as part of the recovery process.
Another study of dog owners found those who walked up to 9,961 steps per day (or roughly 4.16 miles) slept an average of 53 minutes longer than those who walked just 5,247 steps.
Ultimately, while 10,000 steps might be an arbitrary number, it’s good to have a personalized goal in mind to improve your overall health and sleep quality. “We found on days in which people walked more compared to their own average, they reported sleeping better and longer that night,” says Bisson. If you struggle to fall asleep or log too little time sleeping, try incorporating a daily walk into your routine and challenge yourself to increase your step count.